There is a rancorous debate online these days about the level of sexual violence (and violence in general) in George R. R. Martin’s Song Of Ice and Fire series. The arguments have a tendency to conflate the books and the HBO series, which are of course overlapping but distinct versions. Here is a widely tweeted and reblogged post railing against the depictions, and here is a rebuttal that drew plenty of praise.
As a reader who enjoys the Fantasy genre, has a regrettably high tolerance for misogyny in fiction, and thinks authorial choices should simultaneously be respected and held to account, I’m conflicted. But this passage in Rosenberg’s piece stood out to me:
Do we think that people watch Mad Men because they would prefer to live in a time where men dominated business? That we love endless remakes of Pride and Prejudice because we think there’s something romantic about having to marry to avoid poverty? Certainly, we watch period shows of all kinds because of the juxtaposition between those times and our own, but to assume that the result is automatically a yearning to turn back the clock seems quite strange. (emphasis added)
Nice rhetorical flourish to use the term “automatically;” of course our enjoyment does not automatically (or invariably) stem from that single impulse.
But there are definitely people who watch period pieces because they are nostalgic for aspects of the past that at least some of us would consider less than admirable. Consider what Hugh Bonneville, star of the immensely popular Downton Abbey, was quoted as saying just a few months ago:
‘This country is currently in a complete mess and the pre-First World War era was, rightly or wrongly, one in which the structure of society worked,’ Mr Bonneville said. ‘The respect from the “upstairs” characters for those on the other side of the green baize door is important – it’s a benign dictatorship. ‘Our show coincided with this country losing its confidence, while we were looking back to a time of dignity and mutual respect – simple values that we slightly **** on these days.’
These comments did not seem to cause much of a kerfuffle,¹ perhaps because class issues don’t carry the same resonance anymore that race issues do. But the comments to a followup story in the Daily Mail, asking why viewers love period drama, were illuminating, and not in a good way:
Some of us enjoyed “Downton Abbey” because it featured characters who were beautifully dressed, well-spoken and had good manners. It featured no screaming babies, unmarried mothers on benefits, druggies, yobs,”students”, [British citizens who were members of ethnic minorities]² and above all no pop music. Nor was there any evidence of so-called popular culture. For those of us who hate what this country has become, it was required viewing.
- Kate Evans, Nottingham, England, 9/3/2011It is populer because it takes us back to what we were, not what we have been made into, their isnt any multiculti clappy pappy in their is their, the cast are a throw back to our recent past which we all miss the ones that can remember what this country was like, that is, Sandra knows this, [all sic]
- Dennis Shambley, Wigan, 9/3/2011
Everybody seems to be discreetly ignoring the fact that the series is quintessentially ENGLISH. Not a foreigner in sight – save one who ingloriously dies on the job – and this nostalgia undoubtedly contributes to its powerful appeal.
- terry phelps, london, uk, 9/3/2011
[To] Kate Evans, Nottingham 9/3/2011 6.08 – I was going to comment on this subject but you have put everything I feel so perfectly that I could not improve or add to it. Thank you so much.
- JN WILTSHIRE, WILTSHIRE
So yeah, Ms. Rosenberg, I’d have to say that there are definitely people who watch historical dramas because they want to “turn back the clock.”